Publishing and not Being Damned

Getting work published and reducing the Tears Involved


Archive Image of Thompson Reuters Publishing – see

The purpose of writing is to be read. No amount of false humility will ever sufficiently delude a writer into thinking she is destined to a kind of solipsistic world of simply writing for themselves. Writing is communication. It cannot not be. So, with writing comes an audience, and therefore some kind of vehicle whereby ones work reaches a readership. Sometimes the work deserves an audience. Sometimes not.

That being the case its hard to fathom the amount of humiliation, suffering, frustration and soul destruction writers endure to get published and get successful. Its sometimes a baptism of fire leading to real personal and artistic growth, realism and maturity; sometimes an embittering experience which leaves the artist scarred – more often a bit of both.

My own personal worst experience was a publisher saying ‘yes’ to a novel of mine only to baulk when they feared getting sued – by a church. The book was subsequently published and did fine and nobody sued anybody.

The good thing is once you actually do get published, it gets a tad easier to get published subsequently, and one doesn’t take things like rejection slips too seriously. Publishers are invariably the gatekeepers of what’s worth publishing. That being the case, this doesn’t mean that publishers are always right.

For instances: Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ took twelve years to publish, a work of genius. The publisher regarded it as something akin to porn. The New Yorker consistently rejected the work of the young rather angry J.D. Salinger, including shelving after accepting the very first short story where this weird fellow called Holden Caulfield made his first appearance. Let us remind ourselves here that ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ has subsequently sold sixty million copies world wide with an average annual sale rate of two hundred and fifty thousand copies. Moving on to much smaller sales but an equal brilliant game changing work, Becketts Trilogy, a  trilogy of novels – Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable, was rejected by so many publishers that Sam the Man actually made a list to ensure he reminded himself of how many publishers could actually get it wrong.  The first novel of Proust’sRemembrance of Things Past’, ‘Swanns Way’, was rejected, only for the publisher to come crawling back to apologize and admit he was wrong.

The list goes on and on and all it really establishes is that Publishers are only human and get it horribly wrong as do we all. To understand that is to forgive and to save oneself so much misery, especially if one is struggling and starting out, or trying to break into another genre, or just cant find a publisher for your new novel or book of poetry.

Of course there can be all kinds of reasons why one’s work is being rejected by a publisher. As publishers largely don’t give reasons why they say no (imagine actually have to give a reason to the hundreds or even thousands of submissions a publisher might get in a week), its better not to speculate too much on the why of things. When it comes to magazines, for instance, if I am constantly being turned down for reasons I simply cannot fathom,  I generally send in a piece I have published in another country more than once, in other words something I am reasonably sure is an okay piece of work, and if that too is turned down, I just don’t submit there again.

Ad hominen attacks: To get ‘personal’ with a publisher, to send them angry notes filled with nasty well chosen phrases, to spread unfounded stories about them is probably the most foolish and self destructive of actions. It rightly establishes you as someone who can’t really be worked with. Its a bit of a career killer. Of course ‘getting personal’ with a publisher is not the same as loudly and accurately complaining, critiquing and objecting to actions on the part of a publisher with which a writer has a real problem. That’s a writer’s job, and part of the creative process. On the other hand if your work has been rejected, move on. Read over the text after a week or two when one feels a bit better. Ask an honest friend to do the same. If it is okay, send it elsewhere. If it isn’t, fix it. If it isn’t fixable, start another book. This is what serious writers do. Its good to start over betimes.

Publishers come in many many forms, and having been published by many of them, I really don’t mind what their motivations are so long as they treat my work with professionalism.

1. The Political Publisher: This type may have serious ideological motivations around the published text, and may be connected to a religious or a political party or be financed by a governmental body. They have deep pockets and many friends and a rolodex that would be the envy of many a politician. They are generally quietly powerful, well connected,  generally produce high quality work, in other words they will turn your words into a well produced book which will be marketed and sold in many bookshops and be readily available online. There are pitfalls going with a publisher like this, especially the danger of being branded with the same markings as ones publisher, or being associated with the same ideologies or political parties that the publisher has such big connections with. Ask yourself why the publisher has said ‘yes’ to your work before going forward with it. If you are happy to proceed, then do.  

2. The Big Commercial Publisher: This publisher works for a big profit, takes big risks sometimes and has little or no ideology beyond the bottom line. The fact you might be a serious worker in the field of literary fiction or commercial genre fiction matters little to this publisher. As well as publishing interests they may hold a huge stake in television, radio or news media and they may also have their own political interests. This also doesn’t matter to them. They have signed a contract with you because they see money in your work. Whatever genre one works in, one might long to have a publisher like this. this is a company who will give you a six figure advance, a three book deal, and provide huge marketing and publicity machine behind your work. Who doesn’t dream of selling many many books and to be  a famous client of a huge publishing company? Beware though – one is but one of hundreds or even thousands of clients in a giant multinational company. Beware too: It is an incredible amount of pressure, and not  for everyone. It is certainly a type of success, and the type of success that is easily seen and easily measurable in terms of money and fame and books sold. The pitfall here is that such a level of exposure and expectation placed  on ones work and on ones personality can make one lose a sense of perspective and identity. Monumental egos are born in this womb of super fame and self destruction can be the result. It can also negatively impact the quality of ones output. One can be writing to feed the commercial machine one has become a part of rather than staying true to ones own vision.

3. The Small Commercial Publisher: This is a manageable arrangement for many writers. Here one’s work is sold to a regular audience of expectant readers and one can predict a level of income based on the appreciation of a manageable fan base. Publicity is also regular and one finds oneself on the radio and possibly television arts shows, magazines and news media. The pitfall here is the sheer predictable lack of challenge in such an arrangement. One needs some level of resistance and struggle to grow, which may come from other writers, critics or a demanding readership who expects more from their writer, rather than the same novel or text being reproduced in different ways over the course of a mediocre career, which is also a danger with large Commercial publisher. A politically or ideologically minded publisher would not for a moment stand for such a thing.

4. The Not For Profit Publisher. These publishers provide probably the greatest service to the world of writing, taking as they do previously unknown writers or struggling writers of worth and providing a sufficient platform for such writers to actually begin their careers. Not for profit publishing is on the rise due to print on demand services whereby small amounts of a book can be produced at low rates and enough numbers sold to make up for the money spent on small levels of publicity and the hiring of rooms for launches and readings. So many writers owe their careers to these visionaries. It is a sad thing they remain uncelebrated considering all they do. The pitfall here is that they are not for profit: Publicity is small and most of the work is done in the publishers spare time and there may be problems with the finished work unless one has an infinite amount of time and thoroughly  proofed and re proofed ones work before sending it in.

The publishing world is a veritable labyrinth. There are many variations on the above divisions of publisher. For instance: Small Publishing houses are owned by big concerns and are allowed to function independently. Do you homework before sending in manuscripts. Use agents and more than anything – rewrite. Its pretty much the essence of writing.

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